Duck Soup

Anna Leonhardt, Chris Jones, Clive Smith, Hermann Nitsch, Michael Brown, Omar Rodriguez-Graham, Sandro Chia

“To describe the plot would be an exercise in futility, since a Marx Brothers movie exists in moments, bits, sequences, business and dialogue…” -Roger Ebert

The Marx Brothers became leading comedians in Vaudeville and then in movies such as A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup. Much of their humor was ad-libbed. Later Groucho starred in a long running TV show, You Bet Your Life. Duck Soup, from 1933, was a flop at first, but in subsequent years has come to be considered a comedic masterpiece.

Duck Soup is a slapdash comedy seemingly cobbled together as they went along. Groucho is Rufus Firefly, he becomes the leader of bankrupt Freedonia. Explaining further would only confuse. The thing is to see it and get caught up in the moment.

Duck Soup stands for making a mishmash which hopefully in the end is a great treat. In this exhibition, curated by Tim Hawkinson, he brings together disparate works with little central plot. However, the artworks were far from easy to assemble. Most of them were stranded mid-transit in far flung international ports for extended periods of time when the pandemic arrived. Others went on view in exhibitions cut short just a few days after opening. Two were made in remote locations during the quarantine. All of them have had to be patient for an audience to see them.

We hope this exhibition gives these artworks a chance for public life and assessment as NY cautiously reopens this fall.

Clive Smith’s Albers Duck inspired the line of thinking that led to the exhibition’s title. In this recent painting Smith invents a new bird species through a more benign imagined use of genetic engineering than found in most science fiction. He gives his duck a new feather pattern, one based on a classic Josef Albers homage to the square piece. Painted on a used canvas bound book, the first few pages open to reveal his research notes and sketches refining and inventing this new creature.

Living through this pandemic it becomes an oft inescapable lens through which much of life must be viewed for the moment. Important issues in life frequently seez to rise to a more focused salience. As such, many pre-existing features and themes in these selected artworks seem to offer unexpected commentary applicable to this instant.

Sandro Chia’s solitary wayfarers were already single figures in pared down compositions, wandering alone and asking themselves unanswerable existential musings. They seem an appropriate mirror to the past six months.

Likewise, Otis Jones’s compositions have a sculptural and rough-hewn quality. They already seemed metaphors for ideas (minimalism) existing in the real world, with all its entropy and daily challenges. Their endurance takes on the feeling of hope right now. Anna Leonhardt’s lyrical abstractions, and Michael Brown’s oil on gold-leaf paintings feel like worlds onto themselves. Mysterious, but unquestionably grounded, exuding a solid physical presence. Perhaps reminders to strive to remain the same.

Hermann Nitsch has captured the immediacy of life in his vibrant Actionist paintings since the late 50s. The two examples in this exhibition are new paintings, in an intense cerulean blue and radiant yellow. Brighter colors than the red and black paintings seen by most American audiences over the decades. His works in color were the focus of a major career survey staged by The Albertina Museum recently.

Omar Rodriguez-Graham’s abstractions rebuild the past into something new. They are full of energy. In his labor-intensive practice he spends years distorting and breaking down digital images of European old master paintings. These sketches become the starting point to then construct new oil paintings. The past internalized and re-constructed into something for our own time.


September 17 — October 2, 2020

Marc Straus
299 Grand Street
10002 New York